What to Expect… Getting Representation

For many writers, getting representation marks an important milestone in their journey towards a screenwriting career. After all, a good representative will become their staunch industry advocate, opening doors with producers, development and studio/network executives, and creating opportunities for introduction and – hopefully – eventual employment, be it in a writers’ room or on an OWA (Open Writing Assignment), or through a development situation.

But what should you expect when you go out to seek representation? Once again, the What to Expect series is here to break it all down…

Expect it to take some time and effort to find your first rep
In late 2020, a very talented writer I have the pleasure of working with, finished his second 1/2-hour dark comedy pilot. He was in a very fortunate position: Two managers he had been referred to read his previous pilot, and while they didn’t sign him off of that one, they told him that when his new pilot was ready, they wanted him to send it over. So he did. Some weeks passed. And then one of the two managers, a partner at a prominent firm, asked to meet the writer. The writer killed it in the meeting, and got signed on the spot. He has been busy going out on general meetings ever since.

That story, however, is the exception, rather than the rule. This was a situation for a writer with unique life experience, who created exceptionally executed scripts reflecting some of his experiences, with a few meaningful connections. And, for the record, I’ve seen many talented writers with brilliant screenplays and pilots, who even had a few referrals that didn’t get to enjoy that same quick outcome. No, for most writers seeking a rep is going to take more effort, writing, and time. And I was sure to tell the writer as much.

For most writers, it takes a number of scripts, and a number of efforts, some of them cold, to stimulate the interest of a rep. Over the years, my writers have gained representation through the use of targeted query letters, using services such as Virtual Pitch Fest, Stage 32 and Roadmap Writers not to mention gaining interests from screenwriting contests, writing fellowships, and listing services such as The Black List. Many of my writers have submitted multiple scripts to reps, and potentially even took multiple meetings, before finding that rep that they wanted to sign with, who ultimately wanted to represent them. So even though it takes more time, effort, and resources then anyone wants it to, for those who stick with it, who keep writing, who keep pushing for excellence in their work and then getting it out there, eventually, and one way or another, it does work.

Expect to approach more than one rep
I have been helping writers navigate their careers for over a decade, and in that time, rarely, if ever, is a writer introduced to – or does he approach – a single rep, who then goes on to sign him and rep him for years to come. More likely, the writer will have to cast a wide net, even if it’s one spawned by interest following success in a screenwriting contest. In all likelihood, and even when it comes to taking meetings, it will take sitting down with more than one agent or manager to find the right fit.

Expect reps to seek a clear understanding of your brand
If and when a rep is interested in representing you, they will want to understand what you do best and therefore be able to determine your brand, the career they will seek to construct for you, and the opportunities they will want to submit you for. Therefore, it’s of great importance to thoughtfully define your brand and construct a body of work that speaks to your thoughtfully chosen lane.

Expect managers to be more responsive than agents to new writers
In my experience, new writers tend to find a home with managers as their first representatives, long before an agent or agency comes onto the representation team.

As highly regarded manager Zadoc Angell of Echo Lake Entertainment told me when I interviewed him for my book, Breaking In: Tales From the Screenwriting Trenches:

“Management has a responsibility to find the diamonds in the rough—to cultivate new talent… we find that new talent, we cultivate it, we put in the hard years and build a person’s career and get them launched.”

While it is absolutely true that the right rep is one that would effectively advocate for you in the industry, so it doesn’t matter whether they are an agent or a manager, I find that, when it comes to new writers, nine times out of ten (if not ten out of ten), that is going to be a manager rather than an agent, and therefore recommend that new writers focus their representation search on the management space.

Expect managers to want to read more than one screenplay or pilot before signing you
While it does happen on occasion that a writer will get signed off of a single writing sample, be it a screenplay or TV pilot, that is deemed THAT strong, most managers will need to read multiple writing samples from the writer in order to assess their skillset and, most importantly, range. While wanting to confirm that you have clearly identified your brand or “lane,” reps want to see that you have a range within it, and are not simply writing a new version of the same story again and again.

However, if you are so fortunate as to be named winner or finalist in one of the big screenwriting contests, then it is recommended to capitalize on any representation interest, whether or not you have multiple ready-for-showtime pieces in your portfolio. It will remain to be seen whether the interested rep would proceed to sign you off of a single if that’s all you have, but if nothing else you will have started a dialogue while the iron is hot.

Expect reps to give notes on material before taking it out
Few reps will take material out to the professional space exactly as it was when they first read it. Even if they don’t give extensive notes on material deemed primed for the market, they will likely give some level of notes to make it even stronger before they start getting it exposed. There is no telling how deep the notes will go; you may go through one or two rounds of revisions, or your rep may require more. However, within reason, it’s important to work hard to deliver on those rep notes as long as they help make the material stronger, as a strong implementation of notes will boost the rep’s confidence in the material, which will be key when he gets it out to executives, agents and producers to read you across the board.

Expect that reps may recommend developing new material together once they’ve signed you
While your screenplay or TV pilot may have been enough to get a prospective agent or manager to notice your writing and sign you, they may, ultimately, feel that you will be better served by being introduced to the industry utilizing new material, developed with industry exposure in mind, under their tutelage. This is not uncommon, and should be something that the rep is upfront about in initial meetings about how they would work with the writer moving forward.

Expect each potential rep to have his own style and strategy
While all reps will have more or less the same understanding of the business and how it all works, each will have their own approach to representation, based on their background and track record. Some reps will focus more on development, while others, in most cases agents-turned-managers, may focus more heavily on putting the writer up for writing assignments, or getting her staffed. Some reps will favor developing original work to take to market, while others will favor slotting their clients into available opportunities in the marketplace. Some reps prefer that their writers focus almost entirely on the writing and only stop to take the most high-value meetings; others will advocate their writer go on an all-encompassing “water-bottle tour,” making as many fans around town as possible. Some reps will focus only on development and leave the procuring of employment and relationship-building-initiatives to other members of the team. Some will get a spec screenplay out “wide,” getting it as many industry reads as possible, while others will opt to only go to a select, highly targeted group of buyers or producers.  As you can see, there are many, many different approaches.

Therefore, when considering signing with a particular rep, it’s important that the writer assess the reps’ strategy for working with them, whether it’s about breaking a new writer into the industry, or building on an already advancing screenwriting career.

Expect reps to meet with you because they’ve responded to your writing
Like almost everyone in the industry, reps are, in most cases, chronically under water. Therefore, if they opt to meet with you, it’s either because of a very high-profile referral, contest win, or your stellar industry reputation, or, as is the case for emerging writers, because they read your work and responded to it. Now, that doesn’t mean that a rep would be meeting with you because they’ve read your work and want to start sending it to their industry contacts; as noted above, the rep may have other plans in mind for you. But they are meeting with you because they’ve responded to the writing, and now want to see how you do “in the room.”

Expect personality to compute into a rep’s decision of whether or not to sign you
Remember that writer I mentioned at the outset of this blogpost, who was fortunate enough to get repped by one of the two reps who read him? Well, I talked to the manager who signed him before the rep and the writer met, and the rep told me, verbatim: “I loved him on the page. Now he’s going to have to kill it in the room.”

Now, just to be clear, there is no one way of killing it in the room. And killing it in the room doesn’t mean that the writer must have the most dazzling, electrifying, charismatic personality. What it does mean, however, is that the writer should know how to talk about himself, his brand, how to answer that all important “Tell me about yourself” prompt in a way that is personal, memorable, and even relatable. Being good in the room means having your meeting skills down in such a way that would make the potential rep comfortable putting you in rooms with executives, producers and show runners. Not sure what those meeting skills are? Check out my blogpost “Getting Ready for Your Agent or Manager Meeting.” 

Expect to get signed… without signing any actual paperwork
While the phrase “getting signed” implies committing your John Hancock to a piece of paper, the reality is that many (if not most) management firms don’t deploy an actual representation contract, while agencies will require your signature once professional employment will collect funds on your behalf.

Expect to pay your reps by commission
None of your reps, be they agent, manager or lawyer, should charge you out of pocket representation fees. Instead, each member on your representation team will be paid in commission: Your manager or management company will collect 10% commission for your writing services or products, as well your agent or agency, for any work booked while they are your rep of record. Your entertainment lawyer or legal firm should collect a 5% commission.

Do note that reps will collect commissions for the life of the contract that was closed while they were your representative.

Expect that reps will expect you to understand the realities of breaking in
While you are not expected to know the exact budget that your spec screenplay would require, or the ideal number of episodes for a type of show you want to be staffed on, reps are going to expect that you have a clear understanding of how the industry breaks, and some of the realities this includes.

I’ve said this a million times before: No one wants to be a professional educator. Reps like to take on clients that will be smart and show some industry savvy. So while your rep will always be expected to know more about the professional space, they do want to see that you have a firm grasp of what is and what is not realistic for you to expect coming in. If, for example, you’ve only written one pilot, have never staffed on a show or had any traction in the industry, and tell a rep that you are set to be your show’s sole showrunner as well as write every one of its episodes should it sell (contrary to how the TV industry works), or if you tell her that your lyrical, indie-driven spec screenplay it is going to be a million-dollar sale or bust (which would be disproportionate to the budget for those sorts of movies) potential representatives might deem you too green to work with.

Don’t get me wrong: I am all for dreaming big. But when meeting with a potential rep, business savvy will come into play just as much as ambition. So be smart about your long- and short-term goals, develop a strong personal narrative, have a clear understanding of where your writing fits, and the next step of your screenwriting or TV writing career will be just around the corner.